Do you have trouble concentrating on a phone call, when the TV is on in the background? Or maybe reading a newspaper, when people are talking nearby? According to Dr. Paul Laurienti, associate professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, this problem often gets worse with age. Over the past five years, he has studied the phenomenon of "multi-sensory integration": how as we get older, we tend to combine, and often confuse, what we see and what we hear.
His research suggests that older adults have trouble ignoring one sense when they're trying to pay attention to another. For example, if they're reading a book, they may be more easily distracted by sound than a younger person would be.
In his current study, Dr. Laurienti is looking at the effects of "attention training." The idea is to determine whether older adults can learn to block out distractions, and, with practice, actually improve their concentration.
The training involves coming into his lab once a week for eight weeks, and performing a series of tests. The tests start out easy, but get more and more difficult over time. Dr. Laurienti compares the attention training to working out at the gym. "If you go to a personal trainer, they're going to start you out lifting very light weights," he explains. "Then they'll add more weight and more weight, until you're very strong."
In Dr. Laurienti's study, the "weights" are audio-visual tests. For example, a participant might be shown five letters on a screen and asked to rearrange those letters to spell a word. The trick to the test is that, at the same time, the person would need to ignore distracting sounds, or unrelated visual information.
The final study will include 66 participants, with an average age of 70. Half will go through attention training, while the other half will just attend lectures and participate in educational activities. Dr. Laurienti hopes that comparing the two groups will show whether attention training improves concentration more than simply being mentally active. At about half-way through the study, he says it looks like it does and is excited by the potential implications.
"If these results hold, at the end of the study we can really come out and say, 'look older adults are more distractible, but this doesn't have to be permanent,'" he says. "You can actually intervene, and you, yourself ,as an older adult, can actually do some things to make yourself better."
Dr. Laurienti hopes that in the future, programs will be developed to help older adults focus their attention and enhance their memory, ultimately improving their quality of life. His preliminary findings were presented last week at the Organization for Human Brain Mapping conference in Chicago. Dr. Laurienti expects to complete the study next spring, in time to present the final results at next year's conference.